The lines between our social and work lives have blurred and more of us are using social media such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter to keep up with friends, cultivate industry ties and find new jobs. But when does the information become too racy, too forbidden and too much?

In one sense, “friending" your work colleagues is an easy way to keep up, especially if they write about who they had lunch with or the latest gossip around the office. After all, knowledge is power.

But do you want your colleagues to see your party pictures on Facebook? Especially if they weren’t invited?

Social (work) networks

Pam Laughlin, director of career services for Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, US, suggests caution. You’ve got to think hard about whether “friending" your boss or co-workers would be a career asset or liability.

In some workplaces, however, everyone is already on Facebook, so not “friending" them might be the equivalent of avoiding office celebrations or the company picnic, says Laughlin.

Social skill set: Be aware of privacy issues when accepting a colleague’s invite.

Bosses should be wary too, says Scott McLaughlin, an employment lawyer with Jackson Walker in Houston, Texas. The closer a boss gets to subordinates, the more problems can crop up, says McLaughlin, who has developed social media policies for clients. “It seems to me that when you erode the space, more personal details creep in," he says—such as protected medical information that could unwittingly put an employer on notice about a disability.

An online friendship could also generate charges of sexual harassment. “People start to say things they shouldn’t," he says.

McLaughlin discourages boss-subordinate online friendships but agrees they may be hard to avoid, especially when social networking is done outside work hours. However, it’s still a good idea to remind everyone not to make disparaging remarks about the company or comments that would create conflict at work, he says.

Linking professionally

Another way to handle this is to draw rigid lines of what’s social and what’s business. Cassie Biscanin, public relations manager for the testing company Intertek Group, Americas region, thinks of Facebook as a social network and only includes people she knows socially. “I do not ‘friend’ people that I currently work with because—to me—there is place and time for everything," she says. “Facebook is for connecting with old friends and new friends. It’s not a place to connect with people you work with."

For professional contacts, Biscanin uses LinkedIn, which she calls the new Rolodex. While LinkedIn contains social elements, it’s designed around work affiliations. That’s how you sign up and that’s how you search for people, says Biscanin.

Or you can set up a professional Facebook page and another one for friends and family, suggests Brian Miller, president of the Entrepreneur’s Source in Southbury, Connecticut, which provides coaching to would-be entrepreneurs.

Drawing digital lines

The desire to keep the personal, well, personal, seems to be shared by many. According to Workplace Options, an employee wellness consulting company, 62% of workers recently interviewed reported they’re not comfortable “friending" a co-worker on Facebook. But in the nationwide US phone survey of 742 working adults, 22% indicated they were comfortable with participating in social media sites with colleagues, while 16% said it all depends on the co-worker. The survey has a sampling error of +/-3.6 percentage points.

And finally, there’s the matter of who invites whom. Laughlin recommends broaching the matter with your co-workers and boss the old-fashioned way, in person, and asking in private if you can “friend" them. That allows them to give a direct answer and explanation, avoiding the possibility of awkward online silences.


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